By Kevin Shaw | photos courtesy of Playhouse on the Square
I feel sorry for my kids. My twins were born when I was 39 years old (13 years ago) and I find myself saying to them quite often, “I’m old.” “Dad, do you want to go on a bike ride with me?” “Dad, do you want to go rock climbing with me?” “Dad, you do want to play hide-and-seek?” The vast majority of the time, I say “Yes,” but, also, the vast majority of the time I quit far too soon because, well, I’m old. My 88-year-old father and 86-year-old mother live in a two-story condo and just purchased a stair lift. They sit in this metal contraption, put on the “seat belt” (for some inexplicable reason) and motorize themselves up and down the stairs multiple times a day. It moves so slowly that, no matter how old you are when you get on the chair, you’ll be ancient by the time you get off. In short, this is the circle of life—young, old, stair lift. It’s all simply inescapable. Or is it? Tuck Everlasting, a musical that opened this past weekend at Playhouse on the Square offers the question, “If you could live forever, would you want to?”
The book, that became a movie, that became a musical tells the tale of Winnie, an 11-year-old inquisitive girl who recently lost her father and longs for more adventures in her life as she stumbles upon a 17-year-old boy (in appearance, at least) in the woods drinking from a magical spring. The boy (Jesse Tuck) takes her home to meet his family (father, mother and brother) and they eventually share their secret of immortality with her. No matter what happens to them, they never age and never die. For the most part, this peculiar family takes their lot in (eternal) life in stride, while at the same time, lamenting that to never die equates to never being able to really live. Tuck Everlasting is perhaps the most “hodge podgey” musical I’ve ever seen. It takes elements of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, mixed with The Secret Garden and then sprinkles in a bit of Brigadoon for good measure while leaving gaping plot holes scattered throughout. Does it work? I guess it depends on how old you are.
As a man who is simply offering his opinion on things theatrical, I try my best to ask myself, “Who’s the intended audience?” “What was the playwright trying to communicate?” “What was the overall production trying to accomplish?” “Did the show meet these intended goals?” Darn. I’m already at a disadvantage from the start. If a show is based on a children’s book, who is this musical’s intended audience? Probably children. Am I the best person to judge the impact of this show on its target audience–kids? Uh, did I mention that I was old? In the past, I’ve thought it would be great to find some kids to write reviews for other kids to read. They have their own unique way of communicating with each other. They have a “shorthand” style that only makes sense to them. Doesn’t a kid know what other kids would like? Unfortunately, as much as I tried, I just couldn’t put myself in the mindset of a child and gauge this show’s overall effectiveness. Similarly, I couldn’t decide if this show was best suited for very young children, tweens, teens or adults. Was the world of Tuck Everlasting “magical enough” for very small children? Probably not. Was the unspoken call for “imagination” profound enough to engage a tween? Maybe. Was the concept of immortality compelling enough to inspire teenagers to dream? Perhaps. Was the “Be careful what you wish for” foreboding message powerful enough to touch adults? In this old man’s opinion, yes.
Throughout the years, I’m pretty confident people are getting tired of me endlessly citing in these writings how successful (or unsuccessful) shows were/are on Broadway in connection to the shows being produced in Memphis. Why do I have to judge what was done years ago in New York City to the productions being staged here? The reason is because successful shows in New York can unfortunately be sometimes worse in Memphis, but never the reverse. If a show runs on Broadway only 4 weeks then closes (see Tuck Everlasting), there’s a reason and it’s a mighty hill to climb to make it more successful on a smaller scale. Credit has to go to Playhouse on the Square though for consistently bringing to town almost every show (new or old) to play the Big Apple and letting local audiences judge for themselves whether they are witnessing lemons or lemonade. For the most part, under the solid direction of Dave Landis, Tuck Everlasting is a nice, refreshing, tall glass of lemonade. It’s pleasant without being transformative. And that’s okay.
It’s not really clear if this is a show for kids that adults might also enjoy or vice versa. Playhouse’s production “teases” at a request for the audience to use their imaginations, while, at the same time, providing some elements of realism. Perhaps, an all-or-nothing approach would best serve such a show—either provide nothing onstage and force the audience to completely use their imaginations (a la Our Town) or go “all in” and create as magical a world as possible with the rainbows, butterflies and unicorns, etc. Again, for the kids, it just might not be magical enough and for the adults, it just might not be believable enough. (The show opens with references to New Hampshire, yet many of the leads couldn’t drawl any harder if they tried. Confusing.)
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the same talented performer on a Memphis stage who is an excellent singer, dancer and actor only to refer to the program and find out it that it is again the incomparable Gia Welch–this time as the 11 year-old Winnie Foster. She’s almost always unrecognizable from role to role. The only constant is her amazing talent which shines just as brightly as always. Ryan Duda (Jesse Tuck), as the boy discovered in the woods by Winnie, is an excellent singer/actor as he brings just the right amount of charm and gentleness to all his interactions. He was superb as the lead in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and excels here again. Donald Sutton as the elder son, Miles Tuck, does his best to keep up with the rest of his clan of seasoned actors (solid performances by Michael Gravois as the Father, Angus Tuck; and Lorraine Cotton as the Mother, Mae Tuck) before offering a beautiful rendition of “Time” that is easily the best song in the show. Curtis C. Jackson is appropriately “creepy” enough as the Man in the Yellow Suit (with the crazy hair). Although he’s supposed to be the villain, Jackson’s creation was more of a nuisance than a danger to the Tuck family. The ensemble seemed to consist of dancing sprites, fairies and spirits gallivanting about somewhat in Daniel Stuart Nelson’s repetitive choreography only to soar at the end in the very moving rendition of “The Story of Winnie Foster”—a definite highlight.
Tuck Everlasting is a fine show—especially for families. The story is intriguing and amusing enough to keep you wondering what’s coming next. It engages on differing levels depending upon the viewer’s age. For kids, it’s a fun exercise in imagining what is would be like to live forever. For adults, it presents the same as a possibly frightening prospect. While living forever
without aging might sound enticing to some, the reality is that many of the living are actually quite envious of the ones who’ve already left.
Playing now through February 9th , 2019